Monday, August 30, 2010

The Really Big Shawn Burger

I love burgers. The more cheese and bacon and other tasty garnishes that are added to a burger, the better it is in my opinion. Rarely can a burger claim to defend itself against my predatory need to consume beef patties smothered in cheese, but in my life I have found one that can kick my ass: The Really Big Shawn Burger.

The Really Big Shawn Burger is the showcase piece of the Moscow "Starlight Diner" chain of restaurants. These classic American-style diners are dotted around Moscow with my favourite one at Mayakovskaya Metro station. They have an extensive menu of delicious American food, including the best milkshakes in the world, red-leather bench seats and 1950s silver tables and the walls are covered in classical advertising for petroleum, 1960s Chevy cars and Route 66 signs. Plus most of the staff speaks English (and they have English menus!).

Despite the delicious fare offered at Starlight Diner, it is The Really Big Shawn Burger that catches my eye the most. The first time I went to Starlight I was with Wonderpants, Ms. Australia and Quagmire. We ordered a tall "giraffe" of beer, 3.5 litres, and perused the menu. Both Quagmire, another burger lover, and I immediately settled on The Really Big Shawn Burger.

"400 grams of beef with bacon, cheese and our house chili sauce layered between and served on a platter of our famous chili cheese fries. Think you can eat it all?"

The menu was teasing, ney, CHALLENGING us, so Quagmire and I both ordered The Really Big Shawn Burger. Dripping with grease and steaming with deliciousness, the two of us looked at the massive mound of food that was set out in front of us. A giant toothpick held the entire creation together. Do we eat it with a fork or with our hands and, in either case, how?

Quagmire and I both come from the same school of North American thought that a burger, like a pizza, is to be tackled with one's hands, the way a tiger tackles a gazelle. Oh wait, that's a lion. You get the picture.

With piping-hot grease burning our hands as it ran freely out of the burger and down our arms, we attacked. I can say that that first time I attempted The Really Big Shawn Burger I got my ass kicked. I ate 3/4 of it and some of the fries and felt proud of that fact, but there was literally no room left for another bite. Nevertheless the issue nagged at me for several months, as did Ms. Australia who continued to call Quagmire and I "pussies".

To rub salt into the wound a few months after that we returned to Starlight Diner on Mayakovskaya, this time with Gem who, goaded on by Ms. Australia, ordered The Really Big Shawn Burger. Ms. Australia commented at least a dozen times on how Quagmire and I couldn't finish it. To her credit, Gem did finish the monster burger but it took her nearly two hours! Needless to say that she didn't feel too good about it afterwards!

A month after the "Gem Incident" I returned to Starlight determined to consume the mammoth burger which, I've been told, includes the generous serving of chili-cheese fries. Once again, however, the burger prevailed and I felt like more of a loser, especially after watching Gem, a girl, finish it. This was a MAN'S burger, damnit! Why can't I eat a whole one?!? That second attempt at The Really Big Shawn Burger nearly did me in although, to be fair, I had been drinking beer for four hours straight when I attempted to tackle it.

After that I was depressed and convinced that life was not worth living. If a man can't eat a stupidly large cheeseburger, then what kind of man was he? I, obviously, was not a man.

Which is why on Friday, with only one week left in Russia, I joined a group of English teachers including Gem and we made our way to Starlight Diner. I had not forgotten about The Really Big Shawn Burger (bastard!) and I was sufficiently soused to believe that THIS TIME was the time. With prideful relish I told the waitress "One Really Big Shawn Burger!" Gem was in shock. "Again?" she asked.

Of course! I was not leaving Russia until I had managed to gain a victory over this motherf**ker of a burger, and this was it.

About 20 minutes later the beast arrived, looking like it had nearly a year ago when I first attempted it, steaming with arrogant deliciousness, the little pieces of bacon covered in cheese sticking out from the sides of the burger laughing at me. "Ha! You're back for some more, are you?"
"Oh yes. And this time, I shall prevail!"

I almost cried out "By the power of Greyskull!" when I seized the bastard with both hands and, ignoring the familiar pain of the burning grease I took a giant bite out of it (and nearly dislocated my jaw in the process). The burger merely shrugged off this mosquito bite, however, and hit me back with a solid weight in my stomach.

Ignoring the pain I washed some lingering fat-smeared lettuce out of my teeth with a swig of beer and chomped down again. This time the burger noticed and cried out. "Hey! So you wanna play hardball, do ya?"

It began to fight back harder and I admit that after my third bite I was sweating profusely, my stomach was doing somersaults and my hands were trembling, but I could not back down! I refused to return home hanging my head in shame. I swore to myself that if I didn't defeat The Really Big Shawn Burger this time around I would swear off meat forever and eat only carrots and lettuce. THAT was a life I refused to live! So with a burst of determination I took another giant bite out of the burger.

I could feel the fat and grease and beef and bacon and bread and cheese all clambering around in my stomach and trying to climb up my esophagus, which generous glasses of beer helped to keep under control, but I looked at the fearsome monster on my plate and realized that I had eaten 3/4 of it! With a burst of new confidence I seized the burger, looking a lot smaller and not so cocky now, and with three bites in rapid succession I finished it off!

I did it! I ate The Really Big Shawn Burger! There were still a bunch of chili-cheese fries on the plate but with their leader gone they offered no resistance, and quickly piled them into my mouth and then, exhausted but triumphant, I slouched back into the red leather bench and let out a long, well-earned belch.

From that day on I will no fear burger and always walk with my head held high. I defeated Starlight Diner's Really Big Shawn Burger!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Park Pabyedi (Victory Park)

Victory Park in Moscow is one of the more fascinating places in the city. Construction on the park started in 1961. It was meant to serve as a memorial to the great Soviet victory over the Nazis and as place where Victory Day celebrations could be held. Bureaucratic bungling and corruption, however, meant that the park took over 30 years to complete.It was finally completed in 1996 with the addition of a massive obelisk and a tank park.

The land that Victory Park was built on is the exact same spot where, in 1812, Napolean stood and watched Moscow burning. Today it has an extensive fountain garden, forest, a massive second world war museum, a tank park where both German and Soviet machines can be seen and many monuments ringing the hill.

To get to Victory Park take the dark blue metro line to Park Pabyedi (Парк Победы) and turn right when you exit the station. Walk down an understreet tunnel and when you emerge you will see the massive square lined with fountains and a gigantic obelisk at the far end. You are in Victory Park!

Парк Победы metro station

The Victory Obelisk dominates the skyline around the area. The names of nearly every battle the Red Army took part in during the 1941-1945 war is engraved on the obelisk.

Inside the Victory Museum is the "Hall of Tears", a solemn place where the 30 million + dead of the war can be honoured.

The 1st floor of the Victory Museum consists of stunning dioramas of major battles, such as this one depicting the seige of Leningrad.

The stairs to the second floor and the Hall of Heroes are interesting.

The Hall of Heroes: the names of every Soviet citizen who won the Order of Lenin are engraved on the walls.

Sadly, the museum glorifies the Kalishnikov AK-47, the world's most produced assault rifle and responsible for hundreds of conflicts and millions of lives since 1947.

Outside the Victory Museum, at the bottom of the hill, is the tank park. Nearly a hundred vehicles from both German and Soviet arsenals are parked here. All of them were recovered from actual battlefields and many bear the scars of war.

Soviet T-34. I noticed a giant shell hole in the rear of this tank.

Soviet ISU-152 tank-destroyer, recovered from the Kursk battlefield.

The tank park also houses a big collection of aircraft, from early Yak and Mig designs up to the modern-day Mig-29 fighter jet.

At the far end of the tank park is a recreated partisan village. Visitors can roam around and climb on the buildings (as I did!)

A massive Soviet railway gun used during the seige of Budapest.

There's a small waterpark with Soviet gunships and a recreated battlecruiser.

At the end of the tank park is a monument to the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Here a French soldier stands alongside a Russian, American and British soldier. What I never understood was "Why the French? They LOST the war!"

Heading away from Victory Park you are greeted with a fantastic view of the Moscow skyline.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Pigeon Katy

I'm married!

Last week, on August 17th, Katya and I took part in a little ceremony at ZAGS in Moscow, signed the paper, exchanged rings and received a marriage certificate.

When I came to Russia I never had any intentions of finding a girlfriend, let alone getting married. I came because I wanted to see Russia, travel around and find out where the wind would take me. Well, it took me into the arms of a lovely wife who treats me like gold and also makes fantastic Russian food.

In less than two weeks the wind will be carrying me home but not before dropping me off in London, England to visit some long-lost relatives. After London it will take me to Ottawa, Canada to visit my immediate family, and then it will take me to British Columbia where, I'm hoping, it will plop me down in Victoria, right on top of a big juicy job.

Katya is excited to emigrate to Canada. Although she is a Moscow girl who has lived here most of her life (not including the first few years she grew up in Volgograd before her parents moved), she claims that she hates it here. It's not Moscow that she hates; it's living in a big city. The hustle and bustle, the noise, the pollution, the crowds...they all wear on her and she believes that a smaller town in clean, quiet, friendly and peaceful Canada is just what she needs.

She also loves animals more than anyone I've ever met. Last month, when temperatures were topping 40 degrees centigrade, Katya and I stumbled across a pigeon who had walked through some melting tar. The tar had hardened a little and the birds wings and legs were stuck in awkward positions and the animal was unable to move. With it's little head bobbing and it's beady eyes flicking back and forth it was trying to slide itself along on it's belly.

Katya picked the pigeon up and, nearly in tears, took it to the nearest veterinary hospital. The vet, a woman who looked at us as if we were crazy when Katya handed her the pigeon, checked the bird over and then pulled out a needle and promptly euthanized it. Then she asked me for 500 roubles.

Katya was thoroughly traumatized by this event for two days and kept saying how sorry she felt for the pigeon, although eventually I convinced her that at least we helped it die peacefully instead of baking to death in the sun or being mauled by dogs and cats.

Canada has very progressive animal protection laws and Canadians generally love animals and respect them, so Katya is very keen to be a part of such a society. Nevertheless, I fear that it will be the small differences in culture that will make her unhappy, such as friendly customer service and orderly traffic and professional police officers and exhorbitantly-priced mobile phone service.

What I really worry about is getting her the permanent residence visa. This stage of the game is an incredibly difficult bureaucratic nightmare. There are 88 pages of forms to fill out, each question is worded in such a way that it accuses the applicant (including me, the sponsor) of lying about their marriage, and forcing us to prove it (I thought it said somewhere in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that we were to be presumed innocent until proven guilty?). In addition to the forms we require print-outs of all our text messages and phone calls to each other, many of our photos as well as all our wedding photos, translations and notarizations of all of Katya's documents including her degree and work history, and I have to send in my tax assessments for the past bunch of years (difficult to do because I spent 3 of those years overseas).

Then there is the worst part: we have to pay nearly $1500 for the application and then, if Katya is approved, another $985 for a "Right of Permanent Residency" fee.

That will all be in later blog posts. I don't intend to finish Mission to Moscow until Katya and I were happily reunited in Canada, and even then I think it could be interesting. Like Crocodile Dundee, but about a Russian. And a woman. And there's no crocodiles in the beginning (although I wish there were). Maybe "Pigeon Katy"?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ladies & Gentlemen

The people of Moscow, all 11 - 15 million of them (statistics are difficult to accurately assess because of the massive amount of illegal immigration and unregistered citizens in the city), are as varied and vibrant as any other large city in the world. As the 7th largest city in the world and the largest city in Europe, Moscow is impossible to stereotype or categorize.

Nevertheless, in the interests of mindless entertainment, I present you with the people of Moscow!

The Young Men of Moscow

Often arrogant, often incredibly generous. Sometimes violent, sometimes sweet as apple pie. The young men of Moscow can be either your best friend or hold you in the highest contempt, depending on how you interact with them.

Russian men have a reputation for hard work, hard drinking and hard fighting, but for the most part the men of Moscow are incredibly well-behaved and very friendly. At least, 9 times out of 10 my experiences with Russian men in Moscow are positive. To be friends with a Muscovite male means to be almost brothers. With the hard drinking and all the singing and sharing of deepest fears that come with it (vodka is a strange drink; it induces bouts of sudden sentimentality followed by dirty uplifting songs, followed by vomit) it is possible to form a deep bond with a brother Russian in a matter of a few hours.

In my experiences Muscovite men have been a hell of a lot more helpful than the women, especially when lost and asking for directions or dealing with the nerve-wracking bureaucracy in Russia. They generally act with politeness and friendly, if not direct and to the point, about it.

However, there is a dark side to Moscow men. The machismo culture of Russia means that when they sit on a bench next to you on the metro, they will spread their legs wide apart, pushing your out of the way in a show of "I'm dominant". Feel free to push them back. It's part of the male pecking order in Moscow. Many of them walk with the elbows thrust out from the side of their body in a show of muscular ability, but they end up looking as if they are an ostrich trying to fly. I find this is more common among the skinnier men with no muscles. Then there is that ferociously ugly mullet which is everywhere.

Why the mullet, gentlemen? It doesn't take a fashion genius to know that mullets and rat tails are absolutely disgusting. Even your women think so!

The Young Women of Moscow

Ah, the beauty of Russia! This great land is populated by the best women in the world, in this blogger's opinion. Blonde, brunette, red-head, jet-black...what is it with those beautiful faces, that grace and style, those ultra-sexy figures and that feminine confidence?

Russian women are famous around the world for their beauty, but in Moscow they are, like their young male counterparts, charming and friendly and cute and funny yet also venomous, violent and aggressive when someone gets in their way.

The ladies of Moscow are everywhere. It is estimated that in Russia there are 8 women for every man and, while that figure is much lower in Moscow, there are still 3 beautiful ladies for every mullet-sporting gentleman.

It is amazing how many gorgeous young women inhabit this great city. Everywhere one looks there is a beautiful girl who could easily grace the cover of a magazine but instead works as a personal assistant in an office. When I first arrived in Moscow my neck was sore from constantly rotating in utter amazement at the parade of beauties who passed me. Now I'm a sort-of immune to it and only the super-gorgeous catch my eye.

Moscow girls dress with the highest sense of fashion and wouldn't dare go to the corner store without first fixing their hair and choosing the correct pair of high heels to match the shopping bag they are bringing with them. This year a classical 1940's flowery summer dress is all the rage (and I agree whole-heartedly with the trend).

Speaking to these women is easy. If they are under 30 than they know English although may be self-conscious of their abilities. Usually, when they hear me speaking English to someone else, they come up to chat practise their language a little. Naturally I have no problem with this! Sometimes the way to meet a particularly stunning girl is to ask, in English, "Do you speak English?"

Contrary to popular belief most Russian women DO NOT want to emigrate out of Moscow. They love the city and the night clubs and cafes and their friends and families. A Moscow girl will move overseas for love, and that only. They are very fatalist and believe deeply in the unknown mysteries of the paranormal. They believe in soul-mates and love at first sight and ghosts and destiny, and if a Moscow girl falls in love with a man she will remain ferociously loyal and protective, almost like a mother bear protecting her cubs. This also includes an unhealthy dose of jealousy, dependence and cattyness, but in a society where 2 out of every 3 women are destined to live a life alone, it seems natural.

Which explains why a skinny insecure guy with bad teeth and a mullet will have a drop-dead leggy supermodel on his arm.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bashing America

America is one of the most disliked countries in popular opinion around the world and bashing the country and the people is a popular topic of discussion. This is no less true in Russia where the usual complaints and fears of American global hegemony are supported by personal attacks on the American people themselves.

"Americans are fat and uneducated." a student told me (who was ironically fat and making an ironically uneducated statement). "They want to rule the world and are rude and aggressive." As an afterthought she added "And they're racist."

In the past I've tried to educate my American-hating students about the fallacy of popular anti-American opinion but now I've just given up. Funnily enough, when these students meet actual Americans, either as teachers or out in public, they are incredibly congenial and genuinely interested in them.

Nowhere is America-bashing more popular than in my home country of Canada. Canadians probably understand America better than any other nation (who is not America) and are the single most-similar nationality to Americans in the world.

The type of America-hating rhetoric that I hear in Russia is mildly amusing when compared to the venemous insults that spew out of Canadian mouths to their southern big brother, and all of it is a lot more educated-sounding than what I hear in Russia, although as equally-unfounded.

We have a popular political satirist in Canada named "Rick Mercer". He got his fame (and his own show) as a reporter for a CBC program called "This Hour Has 22 Minutes". Rick Mercer's segment was called "Talking To Americans" and involved him travelling to the US and grabbing the lowest, most uneducated dregs of society, putting them in front of the camera, asking them ridiculous questions that they couldn't give intelligent answers for, and then pandering them off as typical Americans. Needless to say that "Talking To Americans" was a big hit in Canada.

Other insults to America and Americans I've heard in Canada range from "All an American needs to be happy is a handgun, a black man to shoot and a bag of crack" to "Americans can't find their own capital on a map" to, simply, "Americans are dumb and overweight"

There is no denying that popular opinions of America in Canada are linked to world opinions, and that America hasn't helped itself in the hearts and minds of Canadians. After September 11 Canada was the first nation to jump on board the War on Terror, where a US F-16 pilot promptly bombed a Canadian military convoy in Afghanistan. Following this episode the Marine Honor Guard at the White House hung the Canadian flag upside down as the Prime-Minister stepped off the helicopter to meet the President. America has reneged on NAFTA by imposing trade tariffs on softwood lumber, and have continually reneged on mutual agreements pertaining to the protection of the Great Lakes.

When pundits like Ann Coulter bash Canada on Fox TV it sends our country into an uproar. She is responsible for saying things like "Canada only exists on the North American continent because we let it" and "Those [sic] faggity Canadian soldiers wouldn't know what a rifle looked like if you made them eat one." (Despite having over 30% of our military fighting in the Kandahar region alongside US forces, and losing hundreds of soldiers in the process).

But imagine if the American equivalent of Rick Mercer came to Canada and did a piece called "Talking to Canadians"? The uproar would be deafening! The message Canadians send is "We can bash you all we want, but don't bash us!"

America is Canada's biggest trading partner, and Canada is America's. Canadians speak the same language (and we don't have an accent), wear the same styles, drive the same cars, watch the same TV programs, eat the same food and play the same sports! Our only differences lie in our political values. So why, then, all the hatred?

Myself, I am a fan of America. The US practically invented democracy, which we in the western hemisphere enjoy and take for granted today. Despite some of the poorer southern states lagging behind, America has some of the best schools in the world and has produced some of the greatest minds in world history. If you think of the 10 most influential inventions in world history, at least half of them will have been invented in the USA. How can an uneducated nation accomplish this?

Yes, Americans are getting fatter, but for all the smug Canadians out there, so are you. So are the British and the Germans and even the French and Japanese! We're all addicted to fast food, and that's not America's fault, either. It's yours, for choosing to eat there.

Indeed, the fact that you can choose to eat a salad or a cheeseburger is largely thanks to America (and I DO thank America for the cheeseburger...whoever invented it should receive a medal).

People claim that America is warlike yet America has stopped more wars from breaking out than has started them. Iraq has definitely tarnished America's image, and when Ann Coulter and other ultra-conservatives attacked Canada for not joining up we Canucks were incensed that Americans didn't notice our contributions in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, America has a fine, indeed the best, record in world history of providing humanitarian, economic, political and military aid to alleviate the suffering of people around the globe.

Americans remain unaware of Canada for the most part. They like to compare our universal health care to communist-style socialism (which it is not...alternative options do exist in Canada) and, well, that's about it. Nevertheless, I love the beauty that is the beast called America.

I have seen a fair part of the United States, including every state along the eastern seaboard, around the Great Lakes and some on the western seaboard. Is there anywhere more beautiful than Pennsylvania, Massachusettes, Virginia or Washington State? I admit that Oregon is rather boring and Detroit is a hell-hole, but Manitoba is ultra-boring and, well, nothing really compares with Detroit.

I love that in America I can visit almost every climate that exists on earth within the relative comfort and safety of the most advanced country in the world. I love that the US military is mighty but answers to democratically-elected government: as a Canadian, I take comfort in the US armed forces. I would much rather be under the influence and protection of the defenders of freedom and democracy than under the Chinese and Russians or, god-forbid, the European Union with its stifling bureaucracy.

I find American people charmingly genuine and very friendly. When I mention I'm from Canada they are usually very interested in me and want to talk to me. Americans, as a rule and not an exception, have a wonderful sense of humor and are some of the most helpful people there are. Once my friend and I had a tire blow-out in New York State and THREE cars pulled over immediately to lend assistance! In Ontario the first ten cars would simply drive by. I can count among some of my favourite friends at least five Americans, and I only have ten favourite friends.

There is no better customer service in the world than south of the Mason-Dixie line, nor can you find better restaurants. Sure, American beer is particularly crappy, but I have to admit a soft spot for Sam Adams. I also love American sports, such as baseball and football (although hockey will always remain my favourite and that is decidely Canadian).

When I see the American flag I feel like I am almost home, and I feel that the blue square against the red and white stripes is strikingly beautiful and symbolic. The Star Spangled Banner for me is an anthem steeped in the rich history of America that speaks of the great expirement of liberty and democracy. I'm not saying that I dislike my own country's flag and anthem, symbols that stand for different things, what I am saying is that I also like America's symbols.

Think of the Statue of Liberty. What better symbol of democracy's development in the world can you find than that?

Bashing America offends me, particularly when it's done by Canadians who should know better. I give Russians the benefit of the doubt because of their history and geographical/cultural distance from America, but Canadians should not be so smug. When I return home I will always remain a defender of what I consider one of the greatest, most important, friendliest and most beautiful countries in the world. The United States of America.

Hopefully one day they'll listen to Canada about how to brew better beer.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Russian Wedding

Two months ago my Russian friends Sasha and Gal were married, and with all good intentions I forgot to tell you about this wedding.

Months before the wedding Gal asked me if I wanted her to invite an English-speaking friend because nobody at the wedding aside from her and the groom can speak English. As they would be busy with getting married and all, I said "Sure! Please!" Gal invited Ms. Australia and I.

The day of the wedding started in Shyolkova, where Gal was hidden away in her sister's (also my fiance) bedroom. Sasha and the best man (who is also called Sasha) arrived lugging a hockey bag filled with alcohol between them.

They were stopped outside the apartment building by the bridal party, who then proceeded to torment the groom and best man in a Russian tradition called vykup. Bascially the groom, aided by his trusted best man, must prove his love for his bride by going through several humiliating challenges.Katya and the bridal party had spent weeks coming up with the vykup and started to recite a poem they had written which was riddled with clues for Sasha to solve.

The first involved finding two horses behind a tree. There were indeed two horses behind a tree; broom sticks with cardboard horse heads were waiting. Sasha and Sasha straddled their broomsticks and were then made to wear silly hats and gallop around like drunken cossacks while making horse sounds.

After this first challenge they had to pull out a few bottles of wine and cognac and give them to the girls.Next there were six balloons weighted down with rocks and inside each balloon was another clue. Sasha, clutching a tinfoil sword, had to pop each balloon and piece together the clues. The end-result was not good for either Sasha; the clues told them they had to wear belly-dancer costumes and perform a belly dance in front of the bridal party.

With red faces and extremely-displeased looks on their faces, the two young men did as instructed while the girls shrieked with laughter and took photos. I was also about to snap off a photo but then felt a surge of pity for them and abstained. Again they had to pay off the women with alcohol.

The vykup went on like this, each challenge bringing him closer to his bride, each one costing him alcohol; first outside, then in the doorway, then in the hallway, then outside the bedroom door and, finally, in the bedroom while Gal watched and laughed at the last humiliation (I very strongly told Katya that our wedding was to be a simple exchange of vows, signing of a form and a couple of drinks).

Next everyone, including family (who had been showing up in greater numbers during the vykup), piled into cars and we all drove to Mytischi and to ZAGS, the government office that registers weddings.

I have seen wedding factories before, in South Korea, and seen a line of brides in beautiful white gowns with their hair done up in expensive fashions, waiting for their turn to be wed, so I wasn't too shocked to see the same thing in Russia. There were no less than 7 wedding parties standing around in the parking lot while one after the other brides and grooms walked out of ZAGS to shouts of "Kiss her! Kiss her!" while people threw coins on their heads. The difference between Russian wedding factories and Korean wedding factories is that the Koreans have a much higher rate of matrimonial production efficiency.

Inside ZAGS Sasha and Gal listened to a woman ramble on about some things I couldn't understand very well, but was pretty much a speech about commitment and sickness and health and all that stuff. Then the wedding, swollen to over 60 people, proceeded to walk around Mytischi to visit important cultural and historical landmarks.

This walk felt like being on a golf course, as wedding parties in front and behind had to move along at a specific speed in order to ensure that only one wedding party was at one monument at one time. I nearly yelled "Play through!" to a party behind us when our party took too long in front of an old Viking boat.

I'm not big on ceremony. Perhaps it's because of my own past, or because I'm selfish, or because I'm not mature enough to appreciate it, but the wedding ceremony for me is like an advance payment one must suffer through before the real wedding can begin: the reception!

Sasha and Gal held their reception at a beautiful restaurant in Mytischi, called Starry Gorod (Old City). This white-stone and dark-oak building is surrounded by willow trees and blooming flowers and includes a huge outdoor covered patio with a self-contained bar. The interior of the restaurant is medieval-chic, with big stone walls supported by giant wooden beams lit by actual flaming torches! It was awesome!For some reason Sasha (and if you know Sasha you understand why) chose the "Imperial March" theme from Star Wars as the music while the guests were seated.

This reception wasn't just an open bar. Each table itself was a bar, groaning under the weight of bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label, red and white wine, cognac, vodka (the good stuff) and bottles of beer chilling in buckets of ice. Candles and floral arrangements highlighted the banquet of booze laid out on each white tablecloth. I was literally in heaven.

Katya, Ms. Australia and I were seated at a table with five other of Katya's relatives who she had never met, but who had flown in from the south of Russia for the free booze...I mean, wedding. Surprisingly it was Katya, not a big drinker herself, who cracked the first bottle of vodka the moment she had sat down and poured everyone a shot. Ms. Australia and I looked at each other and gave each other a solemn "Well, this is it. See you in a day or two!"

Once everyone was seated Sasha's sister, who was MC for this occasion, started the first round of toasts. I understood only a few words. "To....and...and...Sasha and Gal....with...and...that's all!" The dining room erupted into a flurry of clinking glasses and 60+ people downed their shots of vodka.

Then came another toast. "My your health!". Clink clink drink drink. The vodka made my face screw up and my body shiver yet was pleasingly comforting. More toasts ensued, and between each toast I drank from a bottle of beer or a glass of Red Label whiskey or red wine, all three of which I had strategically placed in front of me to chase the vodka.

Toast #3 followed soon after. "Family....happy...thank you Russia!" Same process.

Toast #4: "It is...opinion...normal...from this restaurant....and...urrah!"

Toast #9: "What....last year....Mytischi...goddamn!"

Toast #12: "I can't say how much I love these two, because words can't describe it, but from the bottom of my heart and without irony I can honestly say that I am so happy that they met and were married. To the bride and groom!"

Sometime between toast #12 and toast #21 I not only became fluent in Russian, but dinner was also served. I think I had pork cutlets. Or was it the salmon? I don't remember. I do know that at one point Ms. Australia had to be taken home and so I helped her into a car (whose car? A taxi? Why don't I know?) Somehow I got her home and somehow Gem had come to Mytischi from Moscow, and somehow I convinced her to take Ms. Australia's place at the wedding, and somehow Gem and I made it back to the wedding.

All hell was breaking loose, although I only remember it in snatches. I remember a belly dancer, who was actually a woman and not Sasha or Sasha. I remember dancing myself, or at least stumbling around and crashing into other dancers and a wooden beam. I remember talking to a Russian girl who spoke excellent English. I remember Katya fuming. I remember not seeing Katya or Gem or Sasha or Gal for a long time, but smoking a cigar with Sasha's father. I remember talking to another Russian beauty who spoke English. I remember Gal, the bride, calling me a "Fucking idiot!" in Russian and me understanding. Then I woke up in my bed the next morning.
Thankfully I was alone, and somehow my dress shirt was off but my suit jacket and my tie were still on. So were my trousers and one shoe. Katya wouldn't speak to me when I called her. In fact, it took two days for her to explain to me that I had embarrassed her with my drunkeness, ignored her, chatted up hot Russian women in front of her, and smoked a bowl of weed with some Russian guys nobody knew but who had come to crash the wedding. I had no answers or excuses for any of this, because I didn't remember most of it, although Gem and Sasha's father both confirmed what Katya accused me of.

I'm going to make a great husband. That's why we're not having a wedding reception.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Moscow: Cauldron of Hell

These reports from CNN and Russia Today sums it up. Need I say anything more?

Friday, August 6, 2010

Russian Culture As I See It

As the city of Moscow continues to endure a sweltering heat wave and the surrounding forests and peat bogs continue to burn and pour choking, toxic smoke into the city, I and everyone around me has become not a little on edge as of late. Sleep is nearly impossible and working at Central School, with all its politics and screwy scheduling, is a grinding ordeal. Taking the metro four times a day (which is also filled with putrid eye-burning smoke from the fires) and being jostled by millions of equally irritable people has stretched my nerves to the breaking point.

Yet there are a few things that keep me going. These things stop me from throwing my arms up in the air, boarding an airplane and getting out of this near-hell. The things that allow me to retain my sanity are Katya, Russian history and culture and my hope for the future.

As a girlfriend Katya is far and above anyone I have ever had the fortune (or misfortune) of dating in Canada. The qualities that make a Russian woman the best lover and companion in the world are too numerous to recount here, and there are millions of websites and books devoted to this topic, so I won't touch on them. All I can say is that, for the most part, Russian women are very intelligent, stunningly beautiful, entrancingly feminine and extremely charming. With their quick wits, laisser-faire outlooks on life and well-timed sense of humour, I have been blessed to have captured the heart of a Russian girl and it is in large part due to her that I can endure this summer in Moscow.

Indeed, what gives Russian woman these world-class qualities is Russian culture itself, and this is another reason I can put up with the heat and smoke and crappy situation at work. Russian culture is at the same time subtle and loud, beautiful and terrible, awe-inspiring and completely stupid.

I went to a restaurant near the Old Arbat that was located on ground floor of a beautiful 19th Century building. Inside the walls were painted in a calming soft-yellow and lime-green curtains hung from the huge windows. Paintings of serene Russian village life adorned the walls and soft yellow mini-chandeliers gave the place a warm atmosphere. With the decorative samovars dotted here and there and the wood-carved cats on the table and the smell of cooking lamb and chicken and potatoes wafting from the kitchen, it would have been the most cultured Restaurant I've ever been to.

Of course, this is Russia, and something beautiful has to be countered by something ugly.There were three badly-beaten televisions hanging from the ceiling and they were blaring horrendous Russian pop so loud that I couldn't hear my companions speaking. Although the food was delicious the service was horrible, and the mean old woman who served us actually shouted at us to hurry up and finish eating so she could stop working (it was 4 in the afternoon). A group of businessmen in the corner were getting pasted on vodka and started shouting at each other.

Oh, Russia.

Russia is ancient. People were settling these lands when Socrates was speaking at the Parthenon. The Vikings, on their epic trade journeys to the middle east, mixed with the original inhabitants to create the unique Slavic ethnicity. The Orthodox Church added an old-world, slightly-oriental mysticism to Slavic culture. The Mongol onslaught and subsequent four centuries of occupation gave Russian culture its distinct territoriality and ethnic pride. The beginning of the Czars, with Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible, created an Empire where politics and culture could be organized within the borders of a once-chaotic land.

Go to Red Square and stand in awe in front of the massive red-brick walls of the Kremlin, the original site of Moscow and the centre of so much of world history, or gaze with spiritual contemplation at the beauty of St. Basil's Cathedral. Check out the 700-year-old defensive walls of old Moscow in the Kitay Gorod. Visit the traditional splendour and beauty of old Russia at Suzdal and Vladimir and Nizhny Novgorod.

Moscow 600 years ago: St. Basil's Cathedral.

This is the land of a culture that has confused and dazzled the world many times. In the mid 1800s a wave of Russomania swept over the world as the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Pushkin went international. Tchaikovsky was composing his great symphonies. Czar Alexandre I had liberated Europe from Napolean and Alexandre II was emancipating the serfs and slaves. Enourmous palaces and monuments were going up in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

The 19th Century was Russia's Golden Age, and everywhere I go I can see evidence of this.Walk along the Old Arbat and take in the street painters, cafes, musicians and the beautiful Russo-European architecture. Check out the area around Red Square and admire the buildings and statues and gardens and cobbled streets. Take a visit to St. Petersburg for a real taste of Russia in the mid-19th Century.

Moscow 200 years ago: The Old Arbat.

Then came the October Revolution of 1917 and the brutal civil war that saw the Bolsheviks (Communists) of Lenin seize power, and overnight the classical culture of Russia was forcefully changed. The 20th Century was one of Soviet idealism and repression. The great monuments of Stalinism can be seen today in the glamorous Moscow Metro and the Seven Sisters skyscrapers that ring the city. Bleak and soulless apartment tenements from the era of Kruschev and Brezhnev are everywhere. Statues to Lenin can be found in every park.

Moscow 50 years ago: one of the 7 Sisters near Leningradski Station.

The Soviet era was not all bad for Russian culture. Indeed, it is because of the Communists forced-modernization of Russia that the value of a top-rate education is part of Russian culture today, and most Russians are very-well educated (some of the best Universities in the world, such as Moscow State University, are in Russia yet Russian degrees are not recognized in much of the world, despite a long history of producing some of the most brilliant minds in science, humanities and the arts). It was during the Soviet period that Bulgakov, one of my personal favourite authors, wrote "The Master and Margarita", a thinly-veiled critiscism of Soviet culture in which the Devil and his entourage come to Moscow and wreak hilarious havoc on the bureaucrats and Communist elite.

"The Master and Margarita" serves to show the world that although traditional Russian culture, wit and creativity and deep insight into the human soul, was well-hidden during the Soviet era, it was alive and well.

Russia today is undergoing another violent upheavel in its cultural values, as out-of-control capitalism clashes with traditional mores. The people of Russia, the bearers of the torch of that beautiful Russian culture, are losing their touch as they struggle with every day frustrations, government corruption and decreasing opportunities for the future. Katya, a true Slavophile who has done so much to teach me about the subtleties of these great people, despairs for the future of Russia and has told me that, today, "Russia is for sale at discount prices".

Moscow today: Glass high-rises going up all over the city.

Soon enough I will be returning to Canada, a country with a different and younger cultural heritage than this ancient land, and I no longer know what to expect. Canada is an experiment in multi-culturalism, with a stable democracy and government, well-managed free-market economy and a multi-layered diaspora of cultures all working together for a common cause. Canada represents above-average standards of living blended together with a deep love of nature and freedom, while Russia represents a long and beautiful cultural history mixed with periods of horror and uncertainty about the future. In short, Canada is much more boring than Russia.

And that is mainly why I continue to endure in this terrible Moscow summer.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Moscow Burning

It's a surreal scene in Moscow today. This unprecedented heatwave, the hottest Russia has endured since they began keeping records 130 years ago, has caused numerous forest and peat bog fires in the surrounding area to break out, and the smoke from these fires hangs over the city like a death shroud.

For the past week I've awoken every morning to something that smells like burning grass. A haze of grey smoke drifts throughout the city, through everyone's windows (kept wide open because of the heat) and reduces visibility to a few hundred yards. Everything in my apartment is covered in a light blanket of silky sediment and it is a constant battle to keep electronic equipment, and my fan in particular, clean. The city itself appears as if though it is slowly smoldering, and it reminds me of a scene from Dante's Inferno.

The local fire departments are combating the forest fires with some success, but the peat bog fires are nearly impossible to extinguish. The fires themselves are under the surface, and simply dousing water on the ground does nothing to put them out. In order to effectively fight them hundreds of miles of ditches filled with water need to be dug and Moscow simply doesn't have the resources for such an undertaking. I doubt any city in the world could pull it off.

In July I had Beeline hook up the internet in my new flat and as a promotion they offered me two months of free digital cable. I now have 200 channels, including all the Discovery network channels (which I can watch in English thanks to the modern technology of the digital cable box). Last week Katya and I were watching the news on Russia 1 and a scientist was showing the public why these peat bog fires are breaking out.

She had a one-metre long thermometre stuck into the ground in a grassy clearing and a bunch of monitoring equipment surrounding it. The temperature on the surface, under the relentlessly blazing sun, was an astounding 44 degrees centigrade! She pulled the thermometer out of the ground and the temperature one metre down read 33 degrees! Under the effects of a vicious sun and a long waterless drought, the peat and other plants below the surface are bursting into flames.

In my life I have endured some strange weather. My earliest memories include a tornado taking my bicycle away in Ontario. I have sweltered in the heat of south-east Asia and endured the biting cold of a Russian (and Canadian, for that matter) winter. I remember vicious windstorms cropping up in the Pacific and knocking down trees and houses on the coast. Like everyone everywhere, I stand in awe of the power of mother nature. This summer in Moscow, however, is the most insufferable weather I have ever encountered.

The classrooms at central school are veritable furnaces. There is no air conditioning in the building (like almost everywhere else in Moscow) and the big windows are sealed to keep heat in during the winter. The sun blazes down through the windows into the classroom and I have had one student pass out from the heat. I myself have had my vision go black and seen stars dancing around in front of my eyes. Night time is just as bad, as the sweltering heat causes everyone to sweat profusely in bed. Even with my fan on high I sweat like a pig because the fan simply blows hot, moist air on me like a convection oven. I manage a few hours of sleep at night, taken in snatches of exhaustion, and I know that almost all 15 million Muscovites are suffering through the same torments. Even Katya, who weighs in at a mere 100 lbs and gets cold simply thinking about ice cubes, is sweltering.

The heatwave continues unabated and there is no end in sight. Soon Russians will have been enduring this record-breaking heat for two months and with air conditioning absent from almost everywhere there is little anyone can do to cool down. I have 4 1/2 weeks left here and will soon find myself standing in a cool ocean breeze on Canada's Pacific coast, but for everyone else in Moscow, the only hope is that winter will come early this year.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Yalta Conference

By February of 1944 the front lines in Russia had been pushed back far to the west. Most of Belorussia and the Ukraine had been liberated by the Red Army and Germany's Army Group North, besieging Leningrad, was in a precarious position and would soon be forced to withdraw. Everybody knew that the war would end with an Axis defeat, the only questions were "When" and "How".

The Soviet Union, United Kingdom and the United States of America, called the "Big Three" by this point, decided to hold a top-level conference to discuss these questions and what the post-war world would look like. Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had already met once before, in Tehran, and had discussed general strategy and issued the "unconditional surrender" proclamation to the Axis powers (Germany, Italy, Japan and their sattelites). After spectacular Red Army successes in 1943 at Stalingrad, Kursk and along the Dnieper River, as well as American successes pushing the Japanese out of the Pacific Ocean, it was time to look to the future.

Stalin, ever paranoid, refused to fly in aircraft, therefore it was decided that the conference should take place somewhere he could reach by train. The Crimea, the famous Ukrainian peninsula which juts out into the Black Sea, traditionally a place of seaside resorts and the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, was chosen as the site for the conference not only because it offered the most accessible place for all three leaders but also because it represented the stunning successes of the Soviet Union the year before.

The Crimea had been fought over twice during the war. The first time was during the German onslaughts in 1941 and 1942, when the Red Army had heroically defended the port city of Sevastopol against overwhelming odds. The second time was in 1943 when the Red Army returned during their drive west, this time with the Germans defending Sevastopol (although they didn't manage to put up as much of a defence as the Russians had the year before). Because of this the Crimea was in ruins. The resort town of Yalta was chosen because it was the least damaged of towns on the peninsula.

Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin came to the conference with differing agendas. Roosevelt and Churchill, firm allies mutually committed to each other, were being heavily critiscized by the Soviet press and by Stalin for failing to open a second front in 1943. Indeed, the vast bulk of the German forces were facing the Russians and the Soviet Union had borne the overwhelming brunt of the Second World War. All of European Russia was in ruins and tens of millions of its citizens were dead and maimed, and the USSR desperately needed the western Allies to invade nazi-occupied Europe and draw German divisions away from the Russian front. This was the position Stalin was taking at Yalta.

The western Allies, for the their part, had some difficult decisions ahead of them. When war had broken out in 1939 England had been woefully under-prepared. By 1941 the vast British Empire was being threatened with extinction by the Axis in Europe, Africa, India and Asia. England was barely hanging on when America entered the war. The giant industrial capacity of the USA took some time to convert to full war production and resources had to be split between the European and Pacific theatres. Although the Allies, by 1943, had kicked the Axis out of Africa and had invaded Italy, they felt that they were in no shape to mount a full-scale invasion of western Europe. They had to be satisfied with the strategic bombing campaign over Germany and Lend-Lease shipments to the USSR. By 1944 they were preparing for the long-awaited second front, however.

For the Russians this argument was inconsequential. Russia had been outnumbered and outclassed and, through sheer willpower and at tremendous cost in life and land, had fought the Axis to a standstill and then steadily pushed them back. They couldn't understand why the Allies were making only token efforts to fight the Germans while they, the Soviets, did all the bleeding. They believed, perhaps rightfully so (we will never know), that the UK and US were simply letting the nazis and communists bleed each other to death and thus killing "two birds with one stone."

Roosevelt and Churchill also disagreed on some points about the conduct of the war and the shape of the world when it was all over. Roosevelt trusted Stalin and had tremendous respect for him, despite his appallment at the Great Terror Stalin had unleashed on his people before the war. Roosevelt felt certain that he could work with Stalin and that they could come to an understanding (it is interesting to note that Stalin felt the same way about Roosevelt. Nikita Kruschev, in his memoirs, writes that Stalin only cried publicly twice: once when his first wife Nadya committed suicide and then when Roosevelt passed away). Roosevelt was also a strong supporter of opening the second front with a full-scale invasion of France and the liberation of Western Europe.

Churchill, on the other hand, distrusted Stalin immensely and did not hide the fact. He feared that despite whatever assurances Stalin gave, the Soviet Union would never let the people of Eastern Europe, once they were overrun by the advancing Red Army, democratically choose their own way of life. He was terrified of the Red Army overrunning all of Europe, to the English Channel, and imposing a tyrannical Stalinist dictatorship on hundreds of millions of people. Churchill's foreboding clashed with Roosevelt's idealism and helped to lay the roots of the Cold War.

Because of this fear of Soviet conquest, Churchill lobbied hard for the second front to open in South-East Europe, with an invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia. His arguments were that the western Allies could then drive north and liberate Eastern Europe before the Red Army had time to conquer it. Churchill was adamant that this course of action be chosen and even went so far as to publicly denounce the American plans in Parliament. He knew, however, that England would never be strong enough to conduct such an operation alone. He was well-aware that the sun was setting on the British Empire and that two new superpowers were being born by the war: the USA and the USSR. From now on, England would have to go where America wanted.

So when, on February 4th 1944, the Big Three met at Yalta, the course of history was already being decided.

Poland was the first item on the agenda. It was the German invasion of Poland in 1939 that had started the war, and it was from Poland that Germany had attacked the Soviet Union. Britain had guaranteed Poland's independence, and the Polish government was living in exile in London. The Polish people had been suffering the worst of the nazi occupation. Its large jewish population had completely vanished and all the nazi death camps were situated in Poland. Millions of Poles had been murdered and oppressed and taken off for slave labour in German industry. Now the mighty Red Army stood on the Polish borders and the Germans were digging in for a heavy fight.

Stalin argued that Poland should fall under the Soviet sphere of influence, and that eastern Poland (annexed by the USSR in 1939 in a secret treaty with Hitler) should remain part of the Soviet Union and its borders be extended westwards into Germany in compensation. Stalin refused to recognized the Polish government-in-exile in London, and insisted that the Polish Communist Party (then in exile in Moscow) was the legitimate government.

Both Roosevelt and Churchill were against Stalin's suggestions for Poland, and as a result Stalin gave in a little and promised that free democratic elections would be held in Poland after the war ended. As it turns out, there were elections in Poland under Soviet guidance, but only Communists were allowed to run for office, and only those who were sympathetic to the Stalinist leadership. It was exactly as Churchill feared.

Roosevelt, for his part, wanted the USSR to enter into the war with Japan through an invasion of Manchuria and Korea. Stalin wanted US recognition of Mongolia as part of the Soviet Union and Soviet interests in the Manchurian railway. Roosevelt agreed despite never consulting with the Chinese government. Stalin then agreed to declare war on Japan three months after Germany was defeated.

Other points that the Big Three discussed were the occupation of Germany and, particularly, Berlin once the fighting was over. It was agreed that the Allied and Soviet demarcation line through Germany would be along the Oder River, which cuts Germany in half. Berlin, deep inside the Soviet zone, would be a strange "open city" split into four, with zones of occupation divided between the Soviets, the Americans, the British and the French. The inclusion of the French in Germany's occupation was a surprise for both Roosevelt and Stalin, but Churchill insisted upon it. After all, France had fallen and been completely occupied by the Germans in only 6 weeks in 1940, and it would be Allied soldiers doing all the fighting to liberate her.

Stalin also agreed to allow "free" elections in all territories overrun by the Red Army, but in the end the same format of elections were implemented as in Poland. One area of historical discontent, and indeed even shame for the western powers, was the provision that came out of the Yalta Conference that all former citizens of the USSR currently residing in the west or liberated from German camps by the west's armies were to be returned to the USSR at the end of the war. It is unknown why Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to this without even giving it a second thought, but the fate of millions of emigres, Soviet POWs and even death-camp survivors was sealed at the Yalta conference.

After the war Stalin started a second great purge of the Soviet empire (for indeed by 1946 it was a vast empire, stretching from the Oder River to the Pacific Ocean). Stalin declared that to be captured alive represented treason, and so rather than be hailed as returning heroes, those Soviet soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Germans were sent off to the GULAG in Siberia or executed. Civilians who had been forced into German labour camps were also considered traitors after their liberation, and the few surviving Jews from the concentration camps were treated with open suspicion and hostility. A fate much worse met those Russian emigres who had left during or after the 1917 Revolution and settled in the west. Many Russians living in America, England, Canada, France, Netherlands, Australia and other points of the western world were forcefully repatriated back into the hands of Stalin's NKVD, where they were tried with treason and shot.

One of the biggest, and arguably most important, results of the Yalta Conference was the finalization and formation of a world governing body, the United Nations. Although Stalin wanted all 16 of the Soviet Republics recognized in the UN, the Big Three settled on two: Russia and the Ukraine. It was decided that the UK, the USA, the USSR, China and France (again an unexplained insistence by Churchill) make up the top-echelon permanent Security Council of the United Nations. The site for the United Nations was to be San Francisco although this was later changed to New York. The basic mission statement and operating procedures of the UN were drafted at this conference and an historic world body was formed.

The conference lasted for 7 days, and in the evenings the three powerful leaders had a chance to talk candidly with each other away from the world's media. Churchill refused to speak with Stalin in private and even had his and his delegation's rooms swept for microphones each evening. Roosevelt and Stalin, on the other hand, spent many long hours in discussion. Roosevelt was still not confident that the planned invasion of France, set for late May, would be succesful and he voiced his fears to Stalin. Stalin, for his part, promised to open a massive new offensive in the east that would help draw German divisions away from France (a strange concession considering that Stalin had been arguing for the west to draw German divisions away from Russia). In the event, Stalin kept his word and a few months before the Allied invasion of Normandy the Red Army launched the biggest offensive in world history that took them all the way to Berlin and the Oder River.

When the conference ended the three leaders drafted a press release outlining the results and posed for photographers. They then shook hands and went home to have the agreements ratified by their respective governments. In Moscow the Central Committee was quick to rubber-stamp Stalin's side, but in Washington and London both Congress and Parliament bickered over the wording and the provisions of the agreements. Parliament was especially concerned about Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe but, tired by five years of war, they conceded and drafted it into law.

Three months later the Red Army launched "Operation Bagration" which would overrun all of Eastern Europe while the Allies, shortly after that, landed on the beaches of Normandy and began a long and brutal advance through Western Europe. Roosevelt would die soon after and the next time the "Big Three" would meet, at Potsdam after the war, the US would be represented by President Truman, an avid anti-Communist. The Cold War, which would plunge the entire world into 60 years of nuclear paranoia and has its beginnings at the Yalta Conference, would begin and the shape of everything that has happened since was formed at the little seaside resort town of Yalta.